The Sword Maiden
"Not jian practice again!" Xiao Xiao moaned. "It's the eve of the Spring Festival!"
Mother's reply was stern. "It keeps you alert."
Secretly, Xiao Xiao wanted the jian practice. She was restless and her mind wandered. Thoughts of Ming Zhu and danger filled her mind.
Mother went off to supervise the preparations for the night's reunion banquet, her serving ladies in toll.
Xiao Xiao picked up her jian, pulling the blade out of the ornate scabbard. She heaved it twice, feeling its reassuring weight.
She launched into the basic stances before adding in the drills. Xiao Xiao also threw in a bit of flourish, spinning the jian. Growing more confident, she went with the flow, losing herself in the moment.
Imagining herself as one of the famous sword maidens of lore, Xiao Xiao danced in the courtyard. Her jian gleamed in the late morning sun. It seemed to have its own song, composed of the jingle of the metal, the thrum of vibrations and the colourful patterns on its elaborate guard.
She swirled and spun.
She felt tremendously alive.
Perhaps things would be well.
Red Dates Tea
- 1/4 cup of dried longans.
- 1/2 cup of Chinese red dates.
- 6 cups of water.
- 2 table spoons of rock sugar.
- Rinse the longans and dates under clean running water.
- Add the longans, dates and water in a pot. Boil for 25 minutes or so.
- Serve immediately.
Spring Festival's Eve
There was excitement in the air when the later afternoon slid into evening and the skies darkened. Servants and foot-men raced to lit red lanterns across the palace. The buildings were quickly transformed; they looked like celestial palaces and pagodas of the Jade Emperor, glowing with magical orange and red light.
The kitchens were busy churning out dishes after dishes, all beautifully arranged for visual pleasure. Fishes; delicious soups; steamed red prawns with boiled scallions; chicken baked in kaolin clay; vegetables in thick sauces; sweetmeats in small bowls to cleanse and tempt the taste buds.
Musicians and dancers made the atmosphere more merry while the imperial officials dined and chatted among themselves.
In their own chambers, the women enjoyed course after course. The dishes came in small portions, with the food gracefully and elegantly set on gleaming porcelain plates. Even the chopsticks were made of gold and silver.
Xiao Xiao tried feeding a petulant Xiao Xin who patted away all attempts to give her food. "Eat this, Xiao Xin," the older girl said, holding her golden chopsticks in front of the child who glared at them as if they were something bad. "You hardly ate anything!"
They were all dressed in their best finery: fur-lined gowns with ornate headdresses. Xiao Xin was in a lovely gown, tailored to her age and size, her hair gently tied in a bun in which her maid-servants had added a pink cloth peony.
"Aisin Gioro Zhenzhu," Xiao Xiao muttered angrily. "Before I tell Mother... eat your food!" She hated resorting to using their formal name, using Father's Manchu family name. Xiao Xiao and Xiao Xin were their milk names. Hers was Zhenxi. But Mother preferred using their milk names when they were in the women's palace quarters.
Xiao Xin stuck her tongue out and refused to budge.
Her older sister heaved a huge sigh. "Why this bad mood, Xiao Xin? It's the eve of the Spring Festival. You are supposed to be happy!"
"I want to be like you. Fight baddies."
"Fight baddies? I am not Mulan. Where have you heard it from? Autumn and Cherry Flower?"
"No, you fought bad people before!"
"No, I didn't," Xiao Xiao lied. She hated lying. How could Xiao Xin remember from things a while ago? She was still a baby!
"Did Autumn and Cherry Flower tell you things?" They were Xiao Xin's personal maid servants and prone to story-telling.
The little girl's answer was clear, calm and emphatic. She stared at her sister with bright brown eyes. Xiao Xiao was momentarily struck by how mature Xiao Xin was. No more pouting. Just a steady look reminiscent of Mother's.
"I want to be a dragon like you."
"Not so loud, Xiao Xin!"
"You are just imagining things. Eat your food."
"I will tell Mama."
Before she could yell at her little sister, Xiao Xin had shuffled away to where the maid servants were sitting.
A cold chill settled within Xiao Xiao's chest as if the winter wind had wormed its way to her heart. Did Xiao Xin somehow know the truth?
The sounds of fireworks livened the atmosphere. The ladies-in-waiting rushed to the pavilion to watch the spectacle. Colourful chrysanthemums blossomed in the night sky. Nearby they could hear the rat-tat-tat of firecrackers from the surrounding villages. They were chasing away the old year, the old Nian.
Xiao Xiao heard the exclamations of wonder from the spectators.
Would the Nian go away?
Suddenly there was a loud bang. Yellow flames lit up in the distance.
"A fire! A village is burning!" someone screamed.
"Bad luck, bad luck," someone else muttered. "On the eve of Spring Festival!"
Horrified, Xiao Xiao gasped.
This is not happening. This is not happening!
In her pouch, the green pearl pulsed.